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More Mainland Italy, Sicily and Malta

November 3, 2014

Oh dear, I did mean to write this up more frequently but circumstances seem to have conspired against me – the road to hell and all that. But now it is a rainy day and I have no other urgent tasks to complete.

The view from the back of our boat in Grand Harbour Marina, Malta

The view from the back of our boat in Grand Harbour Marina, Malta

We are now moored in Grand Harbour Marina in Malta, with a departure date in a week or two, hopefully to move on to our first winter quarters in Houmt Souk, Djerba, Tunisia then moving up to Monastir for our usual March lift out and hull cleaning.
The biggest excitement of the past couple of months for us yachties was seeing the start of the Rolex Middle Sea race that left Valletta Grand Harbour on Saturday morning 18th October.
It all began very sedately with groups passing the start line every 10 minutes on a cannon fire. There was little wind for the first two days and the yachts were wizzing up big sails all over the place before they set off.

A puff of smoke from the cannon starting gun

A puff of smoke from the cannon starting gun

The course is to go up through the Messina Straits, round the top of Stromboli, down the west coast of Sicily, down to Pantelleria and Lampedusa then back to Malta – a route of 600 nautical miles. Of course, the boats aren’t allowed to use engines so the actual number of miles they sail depends on where the wind blows them! Unfortunately a huge storm blew up on Monday/Tuesday which scattered the 124 entrants all over the place – 70 of them retired for one reason or another, so only 50 or so completed the course. The website provides a live map of where all the yachts are, and we were watching progress with great interest. The fastest boats got back in just over 3 days, the slowest may still be out there, moored in safe harbours around Sicily! They had to deal with 50 knot winds and 6 metre waves – horrid.

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The interest for us was the British yacht tied up next to us in Grand Harbour Marina called Salana. It is an ordinary boat like ours – a bit bigger and had an RYA Training boat flag flying. They made it up to Stromboli, then turned round and came back the same way, obviously deciding that discretion was the better part of valour!
So my last blog ended in Santa Maria di Leuca. From there we sailed across to Crotone, a pleasant enough place where we renewed our Vodaphone subscriptions, did washing, got wet in heavy rain. Our in-line (in the boom) reefing lines had got quite tangled up so we managed to sort them out – that took a while. The marina there is opposite the fish market and we managed to get a big slice of swordfish and a bag of mussels for our dinner one night – very nice. At the weekend a speedboat competition shattered the calm, but it was good fun as we watched them career around a short course in the bay.

Speed boat racing in Crotone

Speed boat racing in Crotone

After 3 nights there we headed off at dawn towards Roccella Ionica as we were to meet my sister Jessica and her husband in Sicily at the end of September. We had been to Roccella before and liked it very much. It has a bad reputation as there is a big sandbar outside the entrance to the harbour, but if you follow the pilot book instructions it is fine. Not to be attempted if there is a big swell though!

Crashing waves on the long beach outside Roccella

Crashing waves on the long beach outside Roccella

Once tied up there we found that new management has made significant improvements to the facilities – new toilet and shower blocks particularly but also bikes for loan, with a donation of your choice to the guardian. And the famous pizza restaurant is doing excellent business as before – at weekends the seating expanded across the wide quay in front of it, for two to three hundred people At the height of the season it apparently seats around 700!
We paid for a night and collapsed into the café for much needed beers. Then Jessica and Mark regretfully decided not to come to Sicily, so as Roccella is so nice (a very rural setting with pine forests and no traffic) we decided to stay for a month, thus getting a reduced rate for our mooring.
With time to spare Brian was idly reorganising the deep cupboard on the starboard side of the boat and found a lot of water in the bottom. It has always been wet, but this time he decided to investigate properly. In the end we decided that water was coming in through the window (port?) above the seating and running down into the cupboard. So the whole wall lining had to come off (our book racks etc included) and the window removed with some difficulty. It had cracked around the bolt holes (has always been like that) but the silicone holding it on was quite tenacious. We had a spare window that came with the boat, so eventually we managed to get that installed with lots of silicone again. We revarnished the window surround, cleaned out the wet cupboard having stripped out the vinyl lining, stuck that back in and put everything back together. No more leaks! Then Brian decided to do the same to the aft window, which wasn’t such a big task and we could re-use the existing pane, but needed the headlining stripping, foam cleaning off and re-gluing. That is my job. Now Brian is doing the same to the window in the front cabin that has the same problem, but we are waiting for a replacement window to be made. Meanwhile the contents of the cabin shelves are scattered around the boat!
All this is possible as both here and at Roccella we are tied up alongside – a big advantage.
The marina manager organised a hire car for us – a Lancia no less – and we set out to explore the countryside in Calabria – which we had never done before.

Mountains in Calabria

Mountains in Calabria

For the two weeks we had the car we found forests, perch towns and amazing mountainous countryside. Several national parks are scattered through the mountains, but unfortunately there are few marked footpaths, so we wandered through beech woods on forestry tracks. The beech forests were carpeted in wild purple cyclamen – beautiful.

Cyclamen

Cyclamen

I noticed that many of the cars in Calabria are ancient boxy Fiat Pandas, which all seem to have been painted red, white or green – Italy’s national flag colours. They chug around quite happily – one even followed us down a steep cart track in the forest.
A few days later our friends Jean-Jacques and Mary on Thira arrived all the way from Lefkas in Greece. It was great to see them again – it must have been 2 years since our last encounter – so there was a lot of catching up to do. We took them to Stilo, an ancient hilltop town with lots of the typical iron balconies, then out to the forests for a quick walk.


While driving around in Italy I noticed that every bridge and tunnel has a name! Sweet. There is a fantastic road from just south of Roccella all the way to the opposite coast (Reggio di Calabria or thereabouts) called the Ionian to Tyrennean road. It snakes up the valley on the east side on stilts and then goes through the mountains in a 2 kilometre tunnel, to emerge the other side.
Our attempts at birdwatching failed despite it being migration time. We decided that it is because the Italians (and Maltese) shoot anything that flies. One of our last days we walked along the amazing 300 mile beach that borders the huge curve of the gulf just north of the toe of Italy. We did see a flock of grey herons on the beach and two purple herons that flapped up from the reeds. A small fig and olive grove was alive with gold and green finches – very pretty.


All too soon it was time to leave – I returned the car, we said goodbye to Mia in the restaurant, and set off at 6pm for an overnight jaunt to Taormina.

Mia was sorry to see us leave

Mia was sorry to see us leave

The wind was gusty and behind us most of the way, but the autohelm chose to die mid passage. Brian tightened up the steering wheel so it would hold its course for a few minutes at a time, but about 3am (my watch) it just got too rolly so I had to steer full time.
Brian came on deck at 7am and pointed to a lump in the water – which then spouted water. It was a sperm whale – we had never seen one before. We looked them up later and there are two groups resident in the Mediterranean and individuals occasionally transit the Messina Straits to go to the other group. Amazing.
We got to Taormina around 8am and managed to tie up to one of George’s buoys that are well known, just below the Greek theatre. George arrived later and told us that he was taking the buoys up the next day for the winter, so we moved and anchored further down the bay.

Cruise ships in Taormina bay

Cruise ships in Taormina bay

We spent the days on the buoy and at anchor sleeping and sunbathing with a quick dip in the sea, enough to start cleaning off some of the coral worm that had grown on the side of the boat. Brian fixed the autohelm and started to work out how to fix it in future without being able to get the necessary spares – it is just one small nylon part that breaks and he has devised a method by which it might not be necessary.
We had unfortunately broken off an oar and its fixing on the dinghy while moving to the anchorage – it had sunk without trace! Despite many efforts since, it has proved impossible to get the spare parts – either in Syracuse or Malta so the saga continues with efforts to source them from the UK. I have now found a potential source on Ebay.
After two nights recovering in Taormina we headed south (another dawn start) to Syracuse.

Etna at dawn

Etna at dawn

A great sail for the first four hours, then the wind went round in circles and the current headed against us so it was the anticipated 10 hours to the harbour.

Approaching Syracuse harbour

Approaching Syracuse harbour

We booked in for a week at the marina in Syracuse, I headed off the next day to take a load of washing to the laundrette (excellent place) and passed a chandlery where I placed an order for the dinghy spares. Ultimately this failed – they could not get them from Plastimo, the manufacturer and the contact here in Malta has failed too.
We hunted for the big supermarket in pouring rain – it had shut down. Eventually we found one much closer to the marina, in the old town of Ortigia. I went for a walking tour of Ortigia one day – just as interesting as my previous visit!

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The fruit, vegetable and fish market was still there and we treated ourselves to swordfish and mussels yet again, with enough left over to add to squid for a paella the next day.

Fish market, Syracuse

Fish market, Syracuse

Jean-Jacques and Mary turned up – they had been entertaining friends the previous week – and we went out for a good dinner with them one day. We watched cruise ships of various kinds come into the harbour. One was a square rigged boat – an English couple in the marina said that they knew the man who had renewed its rigging twenty years ago – it still looked fine!

A square rigged cruise boat

A square rigged cruise boat

A couple of large motor cruisers were there – one belonging to a Russian mafiosi, and the other to the ex-CEO of a bankrupt Canadian mining company – all most interesting! The latter could be chartered at some ridiculous price.
We weathered a tornado – 50+knots when I looked – with torrential rain. You could see it coming – a black wall of cloud and rain. One of the yachts at anchor apparently drifted towards land, but hooked up on one of the anchors of the large motorcruisers before it hit! The owners weren’t on board so must have been a bit shocked to find their boat somewhere else when they returned.
A big storm over near Corfu had generated a big swell coming west across the Ionian and Tyrennean seas, so we waited for that to die down then headed to Marzamemi on our way to Malta. Marzamemi harbour is a bit of a long way from the small town as we re-discovered. However we managed to find our way and the second night had excellent mussel and clam spaghetti at the restaurant on the seafront – very good.
The dinghy was taken out of the water and scrubbed clean of the new layer of coral worm again. We wrapped it up and put it on board as we would not need it for a few months now. Jean-Jacques has diving kit and had kindly cleaned our propeller again in Roccella, so we weren’t so worried about that this time.
The forecast seemed to indicate that a rapid departure for Malta would just catch a reasonable wind before several days of contrary weather, so we hightailed it at dawn (again) for the 12 hour sail. It was a motorsail again (as usual) but the sails did help.

Another dawn start

Another dawn start

A few miles off the south coast of Sicily we were visited by a starling that clung on to the shrouds for about an hour then flew off. Next a robin fluttered on board and sat on a guardrail – then moved to a slack rope on the genoa! Another robin came along and either the first one fought it off or they swapped places – we couldn’t see. But anyway we had a robin on board for the rest of the trip to Malta! We couldn’t change tack or the robin’s perch would have been disturbed – fortunately the wind agreed and we kept on course. We later found out that robins do migrate – we never knew that either.

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As we approached Malta I had to get stroppy (on the radio) with a Russian tanker that was wandering around ahead of us, changing course and speed so randomly that we couldn’t work out which way to avoid it. Finally the captain responded and they straightened out and maintained a course and sped off towards the west – most odd.
We dropped the sails and the robin flew off about ½ a mile from land. We then got out of the way of a big cruise ship exiting Grand Harbour before arriving and tying up to our berth at Grand Harbour Marina on 10th October.

The church with all the bells at the end of our pontoon

The church with all the bells at the end of our pontoon

The day we arrived it was the start of Birgufest – the local candlelight fiesta in Birgu, the town by the marina. The first night we found fast food stalls around the little square up the hill and a big stage with a band starting to tune up. We were rather tired so retreated early, but the next night went up and had burgers and chips and watched one of the acts while we sipped wine out of plastic cups and stood by the sound boards, watching them as well. The band was great, but the singer was mostly out of key – belting out Maltese popular classics. The streets and square were just lit by thousands of candles, very evocative.

Birgufest candle lit square

Birgufest candle lit square

The intermission was a cartoonist who created amazing pictures from scribbles put up by members of the audience. After that we were treated to a brass and keyboard band and an excellent singer but by then it was very late so we retired. It was great, but unfortunately all that standing kinked my back so I suffered for the next week or two until it recovered.

The next day (Sunday) a re-enactment of some kind was going on in the square – great fun!

Knights of St John re-enactment in Birgu square

Knights of St John re-enactment in Birgu square

Knights of St John re-enactment in Birgu square

Knights of St John re-enactment in Birgu square

Over the previous few weeks I had been organising flights and visits to the UK as I had to get a new passport. I couldn’t do it by post as I need my passport at every port we visit.
So I was booked to fly to London on 21st October, giving me 10 days to get work done. I got quotes for a new sprayhood. The winner came almost straight away, took our old sprayhood and brought the new one back the next day – amazing. It needed a bit of adjustment which was done that afternoon and next day it was all done – very good service. It is now maroon rather than beige, so our unique colour mix is slowly being reduced. It is great to be able to see out again – the old sprayhood windows had become completely opaque.
In addition they have brought me the left over material and some other spare so I can make a new bag for our shopping trolley. And when it stops raining I can paint the frame too, so with its new wheels, a new coat of paint and a new bag it should last another five years!

Water taxi boats at the end of our pontoon

Water taxi boats at the end of our pontoon

Malta is great for chandlery. We have discovered a new route to get to Sliema which is the other side of Valletta. A ferry goes every half hour from the quay at the top of our inlet to Valletta and a new high speed lift goes up to the old battery, where you can walk to the bus station and get the bus wherever you like on Malta island. The new buses are a revelation. Last time we were here they were very charming but ancient yellow and orange buses on their last legs. A new partnership with Arriva had just been announced and in the intervening years a fleet of new buses has been installed and the bus station renovated. However Arriva didn’t make any money so the service has now reverted to Malta Transport, but is still vastly improved. A pity the old iconic buses disappeared though!
Jean-Jacques and Mary followed us here and are spending a month investigating the wonders of Malta and thoroughly enjoying it.

Grand Harbour Marina looking northish

Grand Harbour Marina looking northish

I spent a very fruitful 10 days in the UK visiting almost everyone and getting lots of stuff done. I stayed at my sister’s in Putney, got my new passport (picture at the front now), spent a day with Brian’s sister and her family, clearing out a lot of old papers from our filing system there, went to Glossop and stayed at a friend’s in Simmondley village, checked the houses (fine) and the gardens (not fine), organised a new garden contractor, visited friends in Glossop and then back to London before flying back on Friday 31st October. I didn’t see any witches on broomsticks above the clouds though.


I managed to fit in a bit of sightseeing in London too – a visit to the Courtauld Institute (in Somerset House) took in views of central London, and a walk in Richmond Park helped to clear cobwebs and Jessica and I saw the herds of deer and some exotic ducks.

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I was looked after wonderfully by everyone so a big thankyou to Kate and Jessica. It was great also to meet people who had known about our travels but that we had never met – both in Glossop and London. Even the weather behaved and I didn’t get wet. Back here in Malta it rained! Brian had had a storm or two pass over (the one that upset the Rolex race) – one day he said the lightning struck so close that the hair on his head stood up! Fortunately it didn’t hit the boat.
Jessica (my sister) had been the recipient of a pile of exciting things we had ordered for me to collect and bring back. Brian has lots of new electronic gizmos to play with including a fibre optic camera on a long wire for looking in dark corners and under the boat. A new multimeter that does all sorts of interesting things was among his “presents”. Finally we found a spaghetti measurer too, and a new bright red whistling kettle to replace the one that takes a long time to heat up on the gas.

Cruise Ship edging its way out of Grand Harbour, Malta

Cruise Ship edging its way out of Grand Harbour, Malta

The past two months it had been very hot almost all the time. I flew to the UK in a sundress (changing at Gatwick into something more appropriate) yet on my return it is much cooler. The heat has been a part of the reason I didn’t do this blog earlier – just too hot in the cabin!
The next blog will be from Tunisia with an update on developments since 2011. We left just after the Arab Spring revolution that got rid of the corrupt president and his cronies but how the new government is doing we will find out. Jean-Jacques is making me practise my French in preparation.

This plea looks familiar!

This plea looks familiar!

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